“The Ghana ThinkTank is totally separate from everything else I’ve done at Williams,” Eleanor Lustig ’18 told me, one weekday morning in early March. “I got involved because it’s a different angle than I’ve ever taken on sustainability work at Williams.” Lustig has significant experience in activism and sustainability work: She’s a member of thinkFOOD, co-leader of WRAPS, and part of the founding team for the new Campus Kitchen. “All the work I’ve done here is food-related,” she said, “but this is an opportunity to address sustainability from other perspectives.
The Ghana ThinkTank and WCMA are nearing the end of a yearlong collaboration that brings art, climate change, and imperialism into conversation. According to WCMA’s website, “the ThinkTank ‘develops the first world’ by flipping conventional power dynamics. The artists collect problems in the U.S. and send them to citizen think tanks in ‘developing’ countries to generate solutions. They then put these solutions into action back in the US. What follows is a range of interventions and exchanges that reveal blind spots, challenge cultural assumptions, and turn the idea of expertise on its head.”
At WCMA, the ThinkTank hires a handful of students to bring the project to life in Williamstown. To collect problems last semester, this action team asked students and community members to answer the question, “How does climate change affect you?” This spring, the team has begun to implement the broad solutions that the partner think tanks in Indonesia and Morocco have proposed.
“What I really like about the ThinkTank is that some students on campus have questioned the legitimacy of the solutions, which pushes the action team to think really hard about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Lustig said. “We can’t trivialize the problems or pretend that we’re actually ‘solving’ them.”
Lustig told me that some students critique the concept of “first world problems” being solved in places where climate change is much more urgent than it is in Williamstown. Interpreting the solutions too literally or acting like they’re always solutions writ large could be disrespectful, she said. The Ghana ThinkTank seeks to “open conversation between the global north and the global south, using the flaws and strengths of two cultures to speak to one another.” In practice, though, looking for local solutions from a think tank in a distant community will always expose fundamental cultural differences. This means that some proposals need to be interpreted and adapted by the action team to implement a solution that shows respect to both the Indonesian and Moroccan think tanks and the Williamstown community.
One “spot-on” proposal, according to Lustig, was offered as a solution to one of the problems that she’s working on: “Party culture at Williams is unsustainable.” “You can recycle bottles and cans,” she told me, “but it’s still waste. We need to minimize waste.” The proposed solution? “Make a sculpture out of the garbage.”
This spring, Lustig plans to partner with environmental groups to scour the campus for Solo cups and beer cans. After collecting this party residue, they’ll design a public art piece to make the waste visible to the entire campus. Lustig then plans to produce a time-lapse video of the piece’s construction that can be shared more widely.
The ThinkTank’s solution has inspired Lustig to take her own spin on the problem. “Drinking culture also includes coffee,” she said, which relates to her personal goal of implementing a compost system outside the dining halls to collect compostable coffee cups – she recently started a pilot program with containers in Sawyer, Schow, and Eco Café. As for the original problem about party culture, Lustig is still looking for long-term solutions. “The analog for Solo cups and beer cans is a keg,” she said, “and kegs aren’t allowed. Some people want to bring them back for those reasons. Or you can wash Solo cups out and reuse them, but most people don’t want to do that.” The Ghana ThinkTank itself had to wrestle with this problem for its gallery opening. Since a keg wasn’t an option, the action team threw a BYOC party to minimize waste.
The action team’s other food-related problem states that Florida Mountain turnips – a variety of turnip found on Florida Mountain, located in Berkshire County just east of North Adams – are becoming rarer. The ThinkTank proposed that the community “identify foods that are in danger and suggest replacements.” Lustig decided to interpret and apply this solution to foods that Williams students more regularly consume; the team plans to put trifolds on dining hall tables asking students to think about how climate change will change their diets. Additionally, they plan to label vending machines with the “alternative” names for palm oil and create informational posters about palm oil’s effect on the environment.
“The ‘real solution,’ of course, would be to create a nursery to save the Florida Mountain turnip,” Lustig said, “but that’s beyond our scope. We have to extrapolate from both the problem and the solution to get at the roots. The heart of this specific issue is that our food availability is going to change because of climate change.”
Lustig hadn’t engaged the intersections between art and sustainability before her work with the Ghana ThinkTank. “Doing these things as an art project gave me the license to be a little more bold,” she told me. She related the experience to her work with thinkFOOD’s beef campaign last year, when the club successfully worked with Dining Services to reduce the college’s industrial beef purchases by 50%. Before thinkFOOD could convince Dining Services, though, they had to get the student body on board. “We had to word our campaigns very carefully to be effective,” she said. “We didn’t want to get labeled as vegetarian pushers. No one likes that. When you’re making an art installation, you have more leeway. Individuals don’t feel targeted in the same way. With the compostable cup project, I felt like I had the go-ahead to go one step further than I would’ve gone otherwise. We made the composting containers bold and put them in front of trashcans to attract attention. If this weren’t an art project, I wouldn’t feel as much license to do that.”
There are both pros and cons to artistic interventions: Installations are technically impermanent, which might limit their long-term impact. Similarly, events (which, according to Lustig, are “arguably art”) are community-based but short-lived. While art helps Lustig to “take one step outside herself and make a statement,” it operates differently from direct action pushing for policy changes. To do effective activism, one should compare strategies and consider their relative successes and failures.
Lustig expressed her personal enthusiasm for the opportunity to present solutions as part of a mini think tank. “I’m grateful for opportunity to think critically about these problems and what kind of solutions will not only work but be accepted and well-regarded by students,” she said. Ultimately, her work with the ThinkTank furthers her ongoing work in favor of sustainable food consumption: “Food is the hardest thing about our daily lifestyles for people to think critically about,” she emphasized. “People are really attached to food habits and don’t want to question them. It’s complicated and you don’t want to make people feel defensive, but you’re also not a bad person for asking people to think critically about how much meat they eat. The problem is so unique. It presents unique challenges.” Working as an artist has helped Lustig expand her toolkit as an activist and apply a new disciplinary approach to these unique challenges.
Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives